Monday, May 28, 2012

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
What’s Cooking? Ahi Tuna Appetizer

I like to think of myself as organized, in control – mistress of my universe. But the truth is so far from that ideal that it’s almost laughable. And nothing brings clarity to that truth better than a dinner party.

In the abstract, I love to entertain. I picture the table looking gorgeous and fun – or maybe just fun. I’ve hung streamers from the chandelier, constructed a giant Eiffel Tower from a 3-D puzzle for the centerpiece, even set live goldfish in a crystal bowl as part of a seaside theme. With the table image in mind, I sit down with my recipes and start mixing colors and textures and tastes in what I hope will be both interesting and delicious. I tell my imagination to run wild.

And it does – usually right into a brick wall. It turns out, I’m not really good at gauging how long anything – from setting the table to plating the meal – consumes in the time between the idea and the effort. Invariably, some piece or pieces of the event go by the wayside.

My most recent brick wall took place in advance of a dinner party I auctioned off at a high school reunion. It’s a fun concept, and a really different way to raise money for a charity: I offered to cook dinner for 8 on the giant screened porch at my house. I did the same thing in my New Jersey days, and it was a great success, though that time I served the dinner at the buyer’s house.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Into Africa, Part 4: Lions and Leopards and Rhinos [oh my!]
What’s cooking? Cheese Muffins

As much as I enjoyed Cape Town and the wine country and the rail trip to Pretoria/Jo’burg, it was all a buildup to the last five days, which we spent in the bush.

Our home for those five days, Notten’s Bush Camp, is a delightful private game lodge in the Sabi Sand Reserve. The camp itself comprises a single large building, with a deck, where the meals are served; two or three smaller buildings which house the kitchen, offices, and quarters for the people running the camp; a swimming pool; and eight guest cabins. The best part is that while there are ceiling fans in each cabin, and the main buildings have the obvious electrification needed for cooking and storing food, the entire camp is lit at night by candles and paraffin lamps only. Returning each day from the evening game drive, we were greeted by a romantic fairyland of twinkling lights.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Foodie Faves: Plastic Squeeze Bottles
What’s cooking? Balsamic Glaze

Today’s foodie fave: plastic squeeze bottles. I know, they seem like such a nothing item, but they are amazingly useful to fill a really wide range of needs. And they’re incredibly cheap.

For instance, if you are a cookie/cupcake baker, they’re great for drizzling on icing, or even more detailed work if your icing is stiff enough. If you’re making filled cupcakes, they’re also good for injecting the filling. And for dressing up a scoop of ice cream with chocolate or caramel sauce, these bottles are perfect.

Remember that fennel/grapefruit/salmon salad I wrote about a while back? Here’s a picture to refresh your memory. That nice zig-zag effect with the dressing that gives the dish an artistic look? I loaded the yogurt dressing into a handy-dandy squeeze bottle and flailed away.

Cape Grace Salmon Salad
Finally, I actually keep one in my pantry always loaded with balsamic glaze (call it balsamic reduction if you want). It’s a really flavorful addition to roasted veggies or cold sliced beets or sliced oranges. I also squiggle a bit onto the top of a cup of gazpacho. Here’s a photo of my asparagus ready to go into the oven with a light drizzle of the glaze to season. It’s one of my favorite ways to eat asparagus. And the glaze could not be easier to make.

Balsamic Glaze/Reduction

Pour 2 cups of good balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan. Put it on the stove and set the heat to get the vinegar just below the simmering point – no bubbles, just steam coming off the surface. Keep it at that temperature (though you’ll have to check occasionally to make sure it doesn’t simmer) for 2-3 hours, until it has reduced to a thick syrup. You’ll get about ½ cup of the glaze. Store it at room temperature. If the glaze gets too thick, stand the squeeze bottle in a pan of hot water.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Into Africa, Part 3: Um, Is That Your Leg I’m Standing On?
What’s cooking? South African Bobotie

The Rovos Rail path through South Africa

I’m such a sucker for train travel. I’ve been hooked since 6th grade, when my friend Carmen and I rode from San Antonio to Austin to visit Carmen’s aunt. I had to wait a LONG time – until arriving post-college in NYC – to get reacquainted with the rails, but once there, I embraced train travel. I rode trains to bridge tournaments in White Plains, on Long Island, and in New Jersey; I caught the LIRR from Manhattan to the Hamptons in the summers; I visited my Aunt Peggy via the train to Old Greenwich, Connecticut, and caught weekends with friends in DC via Amtrak. I didn’t even mind commuter trains, as they afforded me time for a quiet snooze or just unwinding after a long day on Wall Street. But then, train travel is much more the norm in the Northeast.

More recently, my husband and I have had some great vacations by train. We toured a few of the national parks on the American Orient Express, and two summers ago saw the Canadian Rockies by rail. So when our traveling companions for the Africa adventure suggested taking the train from Cape Town to Johannesburg (“Jo’burg” to the cognoscenti), it sounded like a great idea.

The Rovos Rail Company claims to have “the most luxurious train in the world.” I believe them. “The Pride of Africa” was made up of cars that have been lovingly restored to their pre-1941 state but with an eye to modern comfort (like hot showers, hair dryers and shaver plugs in the bathrooms). Wood paneling everywhere and trim polished to a mirror finish – I kept expecting Noël Coward to show up at the bar. And the mandate for formal dress at dinner pretty much solidifies it – no T-shirts and flip-flops here.

You spend your day in the lounges or the observation car, reading or writing or just watching the terrain go from lush green in the wine region through the drier grasslands of the semi-desert Karoo region, and finally into the hills around Jo'burg. Tea and cakes show up in the afternoons, and the bar is always open.

 On the second day, we stopped midday at Kimberley, one of the original diamond boom-towns, where we toured the old mine and saw the Big Hole, the world’s largest manmade excavation.

The only real drawback to train travel, as I see it, is that the sleeping arrangements – unless you go for the royalty suite – can be a bit, er, unusual. On the trip we took to the American West, we had bunk beds. And my husband insisted that I was much nimbler than he, so I would be taking the upper bunk. On this trip, I said I wasn’t taking the upper bunk, so he upgraded us to a queen-sized bed. But the queen-sized bed unfolded from a couch, so the sleeping direction was sideways; i.e., one of us would have to sleep against the wall. I must have lost the coin toss while I wasn’t looking, so any time I had to get up during the night, I had to stand up in bed and step over him. With the train clickety-clacking along, this made for some tricky moves, and a few occasions for shouting in the dark. That’s what he gets for tossing the coin by himself.

The Pride of Africa's dining car.
All the meals were special, but the four-course dinners – with different wines for each course –  were amazing. If the rail part of our trip had been any longer, they’d have had to roll me off the train. I did discover a wonderful dish that is quintessentially South African. It’s called bobotie, pronounced “bo-BO-tee.” It’s essentially a curried meatloaf with a baked custard topping, probably introduced by the Malaysian slaves brought to the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company. It’s now considered by many to be the South African national dish.

The flavors of bobotie are complex enough that – beyond the mango chutney, which is mandatory –  you need only a simple green vegetable to accompany it. Several sources I found also suggest yellow rice, probably because it’s a very juicy dish.

That's custard around the meat, not liquid.

South African Bobotie (adapted from Gourmet Magazine, January 2006)
Serves 6-8.

2 slices firm white sandwich bread
1½ cups whole milk
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for buttering the baking dish
2 medium onions, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped (about 1½ cups)
2 teaspoons salt
⅓ cup golden raisins
¼ cup slivered almonds
2 Tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon sugar
2 pounds ground lamb or beef (15% fat), or a mixture of the two
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ - 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
3 large eggs
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350º. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish.

Tear the bread into coarse crumbs and soak them in the milk in a small bowl until very soft – about 15 minutes. Strain the mixture over another bowl, lightly pressing on the bread to remove excess milk. Reserve the bread and milk separately.

Heat the butter in a large (12") skillet on medium-low heat and sauté the onions and the apple with ¼ teaspoon of the salt, stirring occasionally, until the onions and apple are soft, about 12 minutes. Stir in the raisins, almonds, curry powder, and sugar, and continue to cook, stirring, for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat.

In a large bowl, lightly beat one of the eggs. Mix in the ground meat, the bread crumbs, the onion/curry skillet mixture, the lemon juice and zest, 1½ teaspoons of the salt, and the pepper. Blend the mixture with your hands until it is well combined. Try not to overmix. Spread the meat evenly into the casserole. Bake at 350º for 30 minutes.

While the meatloaf bakes, whisk together the reserved milk and the remaining two eggs and the final ¼ teaspoon of salt.

At the end of the 30 minutes, remove the meatloaf from the oven and, with the meatloaf still in the dish, pour off some of the excess fat that accumulates around the meat. Pour the milk/egg mixture over the meat and bake uncovered for a further 15 minutes until the custard is just set and lightly browned.

Serve with mango chutney and white or yellow rice.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Foodie Faves: Microplane Rasp Graters

I’m adding a new feature to this blog – call it a bloguette. An amuse-bouche for your kitchen. Whatever. But I occasionally come across a tool – maybe a new one, maybe an old one. Maybe not so much a tool as a thing I do in the kitchen that I find really useful that I discover isn’t as widely known as I had thought. And I intend that these bloguettes will be weekly. Note the part about intend.

So today’s bloguette is about my Microplane rasp graters.

According to The New York Times, the spark of imagination that moved the rasp from the workshop (where it was used to smooth wood) to the kitchen took place in 1994. A homemaker in Ottawa, Canada, was making an Armenian orange cake, but she was getting frustrated at being unable to get good orange zest using her old grater. She picked up a new rasp her husband had brought home from their hardware store, to see if it would work any better. The lacy bits of orange rind that resulted convinced her to start marketing the tool to both carpenters and cooks. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I use the large one for a long list of foods. It grates Parmesan or other hard cheese in a way that’s lighter and wispier than any other way of grating. It produces a fine zest of lemon or lime or orange rind with hardly any effort. And I don’t know of another instrument that gives me such nice grated onion or garlic or fresh ginger, with a minimum of trouble or mess.

I keep the smaller one for grating whole nutmeg, and any other hard spice like cinnamon. In fact, freshly grated nutmeg is so far superior to the jar of already grated stuff that once you try it, you’ll never go back. Moreover, the actual nutmeg keeps almost forever, so in the end, it’s also cheaper.

These days, you can find a fairly wide variety of styles for rasp graters, including some that have a measuring device attached. You’d probably want one with larger holes for shaving chocolate or coconut, like the ones in this picture from Crate and Barrel. You can also find them at Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table, or a host of online suppliers of kitchen gear.

The way I know I like my rasp so much is that I was cooking in my daughter-in-law’s house not long ago, and I noticed she had two rasps in her tool drawer. “I see you have two of these,” I said. “Yes,” she said. “You gave me both of them.” And the way I know what a great person she is is that she had never said anything about it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Into Africa, Part 2: Why Not to Travel with a Food Writer
What’s cooking? Cape Grace Salmon Salad

I don’t know what I expected in terms of South African cuisine. What I found was that the polyglot culture (11 national languages!) of the country makes it a hotbed of great eating. I set out to be brave and try lots of local dishes, but it turned out that the bravery part wasn’t really necessary, so my experiments were mostly just fun.

In Cape Town, where fresh fish is the dominant delicacy, most restaurants simply offer what they call Line Fish, which is pretty much the whitefish of the day. Two I know we had were kingklip and snoek, both so fresh you could practically feel the ocean spray.

Breakfast and lunch were at our home base in Cape Town, the elegant Cape Grace Hotel (pictured above, with the magnificent Table Mountain in the background). What a place. Coffee delivered five minutes after your wake-up call. Exquisite turndown service complete with slippers and a little mat for your feet – and chocolates, of course. I felt so spoiled! The breakfast buffet included raw oysters, mini quiches, scones, meats and cheeses – and that was just the cold stuff. My favorite was the passion fruit, which I’d never had. Its flavor is similar to kiwi, but with a softer, juicier texture, and crunchy seeds in the center. They’re the size of a small plum and a little weird looking on the inside, but you just have to get past that. Cut them in half and serve them plain. I had to hold back my desire to take the whole bowl of them to our table.

Ryan's Kitchen, where we ate outside.

We spent three days in the wine country east of Cape Town – Franschoek and Stellenbosch – which has much the same feel as Napa Valley. At a remarkable restaurant called Ryan’s Kitchen, I feasted on a gemsbok (pronounced “hemsbok” with a gutteral “h”) steak, the meat from a stunning (and plentiful) type of antelope. It’s leaner than beef and tastes much like venison, though not as gamey. Ryan is a fan of modernist cuisine, so my gemsbok was cooked sous vide, a technique that involves vacuum-sealing the meat in a plastic bag, and cooking it oh-so slowly in a water bath. The result is food that’s evenly done throughout, tender and moist, yet without a crust. So it’s different, but very flavorful.

The menu is driven by local and indigenous ingredients, but Ryan’s artistic and inventive presentations (see the photo above of my tuna appetizer) are so bright and colorful, they look like they were developed at Pixar rather than a kitchen. No basket of bread for Ryan while you wait for your appetizers. Instead, the amuse bouche (chef’s appetizer) platter arrives as a handful of tastes displayed on a tiny wooden bench: a small dish of a spicy tomato foam topped with a crisp basil leaf, a cheese and potato puff on tomato cream, and two items in test tubes – a slim tube of butternut and ginger soup, and a larger one of frozen basil juice (cold and salty), smoking with a bit of dry ice. Fun and delicious.

My dessert was a light and tangy Nectarine and Madagascan Vanilla Soufflé, served with lavender ice cream. The lavender flavor was so smooth and subtle, I may have to try duplicating it this summer. Of course, that’s about all I could hope to duplicate from Ryan’s Kitchen – which should maybe be renamed Ryan’s Laboratory. Spooms and foams and gels abound, which adds a real sparkle to the meal.

Not surprisingly, I pestered servers and chefs just about everywhere we went, to tell me what was in various dishes and how they were prepared. One dish our whole group liked was a delicious salmon salad from the Cape Grace.

Kitchen Goddess note: At the hotel, they make this salad with cured salmon, but curing salmon was just a little more work than I was really interested in, so I went to Whole Foods, where I picked out a piece of salmon that was marinated in tequila and lime and had them steam it. Waaay easier, and very tasty. You could try this recipe with any cooked salmon – baked, broiled, poached, or steamed. You just want to keep the flavor of the salmon simple.

Cape Grace Salmon Salad (serves 4 as a first course)

½ pound salmon, cooked
1 small fennel bulb, sliced thinly (I highly recommend a mandolin, as you can get really nice, thin slices quickly)
1 grapefruit, peeled and sectioned
1 5-ounce package of baby arugula

For the dressing:
1 6-ounce container of plain yogurt (I prefer Fage, and you can go for the low-fat or no-fat yogurt if you like)
1 tablespoon agave syrup, or more to taste

Spread a handful of the baby arugula on a plate, topped with a sprinkling of the fennel slices. Arrange 4 whole grapefruit segments on top and pile the salmon in the center. Stir together well the yogurt and agave syrup, and drizzle on top. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Kitchen Goddess note: You can substitute honey for the agave syrup, but the agave is not as sweet or as thick as honey, so I’d recommend adding a small amount (½ teaspoon) of lemon juice with the honey.